Peering into the bush, we watched the large dark shape slowly move towards the sunlight. We pulled binoculars to our eyes, straining to see what shape the animal’s face was. Was it grazing or browsing? Head up or head down? For a fleeting moment we got a good look until, possibly noticing he had an audience, he was gone. But not before we were able to work out what it was.
“Black!” proclaimed my eldest daughter, triumphantly. She was right – the shyness of the rhino hiding in the bush was one of the indicators that it was of the rarer black kind rather than the more common white. It still amazes me that my children can tell the difference between the two. And that is just one of the many things they have learned about since we moved to South Africa a couple of years ago.
You really do discover something new every day on safari. And that is one of the reasons we love it so much.
We have taken our children on several safari trips since living here in Pretoria, South Africa. This has included both high-end and do-it-yourself holidays. Both have their benefits but children can definitely get a huge amount out of a safari vacation whichever way you do it, so long as you carry out a bit of pre-planning before you go. And, according to family safari specialist Richard Field of African Family Safaris, this should include thinking about their age ahead of booking the trip:
“From my experience of guiding families through Africa, if you are looking for this to be a ‘once in a lifetime’ safari then you will want your youngest to be at least seven,” he says.
“By this stage they generally have a level of understanding and patience that will allow them to sit quietly and watch a pride of sleeping lions for an hour. It also allows you to travel a bit further afield and do longer game drives.”
Although seven is the youngest age he would recommend, the 8-13 range is really the ‘sweet spot’ in his view :“They are at an age where they are generally very enthusiastic about everything and flexible enough to go with suggestions,” he said. “They are still young enough and free enough to show their unguarded excitement when they see something amazing. For parents, the great thing is to get to experience the safari themselves, but also through the eyes of their kids”.
Even if your children are in the right age range for this sort of holiday, you may still need some persuading. After all, these trips can be pricey so you want to make sure you get the most out of it. But Richard informed me he believes that if you get it right, you will have memories to last for the rest of your lives:
“If you find yourself in a very wild and uncontrived environment then there are no guarantees as to what and when you will see something,” he said.
“This means that everything you see becomes a gift and generates a level of surprise and wonder.
“If you happen to hit the jackpot and see or experience something amazing like a cheetah chasing an antelope, then you will be talking about that experience for decades.”
Other than the memories though there are plenty of other great reasons for taking children of this age on this sort of holiday. While out on game drives, the guides will be communicating about the wildlife and the surrounding ecology, providing insights into the functioning of the overall ecosystem, all the while keeping it fun and interesting. The children won’t even realise they’re learning.
“They will see first-hand how dynamic and interconnected a functioning ecosystem is, as well as how fragile it is and how vital it is that we protect these areas for generations to come,” Field added.
“Plus, they will learn about relating to different cultures, about how people live – even about how they can be happy without having too much in the way of material wealth.”
Although Richard Field mostly works with companies that take their guests on fully catered and guided tours, there is no reason why children shouldn’t get just as much out of a self-drive safari where parents might have to take more of the lead.
Glenys Karran, who is from New Zealand but currently lives in South Africa, recently took her two children aged 6 and 9 to Kruger National Park. Instead of booking an organised guided holiday they took their own car and stayed in the park’s rest camps. Listening to Glenys’ account of their trip, it was obvious how much her children had taken in.
“My daughter tells me she learned how buffalo weaver birds cooperate to build massive communal nests, which you can use to help navigate in the park,” she said.
“And the kids have come up with some great quotes in response to their mother’s rather pathetic ‘poor impalas, always having to watch out for lions’ comments – they simply point out that the lions need to eat too and sometimes an impala needs to be killed.
“They really go beyond the facile ‘herbivores are good, carnivores are bad’ narrative that you find in Disney movies!”
Glenys also added that the holiday was a great time for the family to bond and learn things together.
“As we watched mother zebras, elephants, impalas, baboons, vervet monkeys and lions protecting and nurturing their young, we discussed the way herds behave to achieve herd protections,” she said.
“We also spent an afternoon watching (and painting) geckos, marvelling at their colours, speed, agility and ability to stay still.
“The joy of finding animals yourself shouldn’t be underestimated. My daughter loves being the one to spot them. In fact, her two best spots were from our veranda in an unfenced reserve at night – a porcupine with her baby, and a spotted genet.”
And that is how you make memories that last forever.
How to prepare for a safari holiday with kids
- Get your children pre-engaged prior to departure: look through safari videos, check out live webcams, talk about what they might see.
- Show them nature documentaries like the Big Cat Diary.
- If possible get them their own camera and invest in child-friendly binoculars. Help them practice using both before you go.
- Other things you might want to bring for the kids include: a notebook for them to keep track of everything they see; card and board games for the periods between game drives; paints or coloured pencils; swimsuits in the hot season– most lodges and camps have a pool; hats and sunscreen; mosquito repellent.
- Check if there is malaria in the area where you will be travelling and order the appropriate prophylactics.
What do you need to know about going on safari with kids?
- There will be early mornings – the best sightings are often as the sun rises.
- Many lodges are child-friendly but you will still want your children to be respectful of other guests, especially on game drives. For younger children, lodges can often organize a separate vehicle for families.
- Make sure your children understand the safety rules – including not hanging out of windows or over the side of game drive vehicles.
- As you can’t get out of the vehicle on many reserves, make sure your kids empty their bladders before you set off on a game drive.
- Take snacks in the vehicles with you – the drives can be long, and empty stomachs can lead to unhappy kids.
- Richard advises leaving all electronics behind to help families really focus on the wildlife and nature. We allow ours to bring theirs – on self-drive safaris in particular you might have long periods without seeing anything.
- Always remember the most important rule is to remain flexible! You might want to go out on two game drives a day; they might want to play in the pool.